At what point do politics and sport mix?
It’s an interesting question and very pertinent today. Typically in a situation where a sporting event, usually the Olympic Games or a Football World Cup, takes place in a region where there is conflict, political instability or some other undesirable situation, then the default reaction against those crying ‘boycott’ is that politics and sport do not mix.
Usually I would be the first to agree. You see, I am one of these football fans that always buys the overpriced shirt, updates my membership at the best club in North London without fail every year and will generally bemoan the state of the beautiful game at length over a luke-warm pint of beer that has cost me £4 (if I’m lucky). However, yet more allegations of corruption at the heart of Fifa, combined with ongoing revelations about workers’ rights in Qatar make the situation harder and harder to ignore. At some point, supporting England should take second place to blatant and indefensible injustice.
Let’s look at what we know about the 2022 Qatar World Cup in particular.
In my line of work, it is not uncommon to have to deal with a fairly detailed and painstaking procurement process. This is especially the case when chasing a government contract. However annoying this can be, it is something that you learn to accept because due process must be followed. You cannot just award contracts to your mates or someone to whom you owe a favour. As you might imagine, anything I have dealt with pales into insignificance when compared to the awarding of a World Cup. Which is what makes the whole sorry story around Qatar 2022 so mind boggling.
The process for selecting the hosts for both the 2018 and 2022 World Cups lasted almost two years. In that time, all of those bidding for these tournaments had a clear understanding that they were supposed to be held in the summer. To be fair, the Qatar bid was always adamant that this was not a problem. Yet, having awarded the 2022 tournament to Qatar, Fifa subsequently decided that a summer World Cup would not work but chose to keep the tournament there anyway rather than rerun the bid process. An odd decision made all the more suspicious by a series of allegations of ‘vote-buying’ (later retracted) with an on-going whiff of something not being quite right with the whole process. The whole sorry affair has erupted again this week in spectacular fashion with a series of high profile Fifa executives being arrested. It is not clear if any of these arrests relate to the awarding of the 2018 or 2022 tournaments but we do now know that the FBI is undertaking a criminal investigation into both bids.
What makes the Qatar World Cup of particular concern is the appalling situation faced by migrant workers building the stadiums. A recent article in the Guardian from Marina Hyde makes for grim reading. Migrant workers face near ‘slave like’ conditions, passports confiscated, sub-standard living conditions and poverty wages. Play Fair Qatar estimates more than 62 workers will die for each game played in the tournament. Let that sink in.
It is here that I will revisit the original argument that politics and sport should not mix. Normally I would agree. Boycotting a sporting event because you do not like the actions of a particular government sets us on a difficult course. For example, I would never suggest boycotting the Russian World Cup over the situation in the Ukraine (others would disagree) because the two are not related. However, the situation faced by migrant workers in Qatar is not the result of some unrelated political issue. In fact, their situation is directly the consequence of the World Cup being hosted in Qatar in the first place. We should seriously ask ourselves if we are comfortable with that and if not what we propose to do about it.
Taking a stand
So what should we do about it? I think now is the time for the FA (and its partners in the football world) to demand action. Uefa have already asked that the upcoming Fifa Presidential elections be postponed but this is not enough. Until a full, independent, investigation into the 2018 and 2022 bids is completed and until we are satisfied migrant workers in Qatar are being treated fairly then the Qatar tournament (at least) should be put on hold. The English FA should threaten to boycott the World Cup in Qatar if this does not happen.
This alone might not exert the necessary influence to ensure action is taken but it should surely make key international sponsors take notice. Then Fifa will surely listen. Encouragingly, VISA has already weighed in on worker rights in Qatar so I expect that sponsors would move quickly if one of the leading footballing nations threatened not to take part in the tournament. Others in Uefa could even follow. The time to act is now, when the world is watching and Fifa cannot wriggle out of its responsibilities as it so often has. Too much in this whole situation feels wrong for us to meekly remark that ‘it’s only a game’. We all hope football is not just about the money, now is the time to prove it.
Keiran Pedley is an Associate Director at GfK NOP and presenter of the podcast ‘Polling Matters’. He tweets about politics and polling at @keiranpedley.